By Steven Pressfield
HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHY Israelis bristle when the term “pre-’67 borders” is brought up as part of a suggested solution to the Palestinian dilemma? Or why the issue of “settlements” has become such a flashpoint for Israeli-Arab relations? Both date directly to the Six Day War of June 5 to 10, 1967.
During the brief but decisive clash, Israel utterly routed the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in less than a week, despite being outnumbered nearly three-to-one in men, planes and tanks. It was one of the most spectacular underdog victories in the history of warfare, stunning the world but creating a series of problems that continue to bedevil Arab-Israeli relations to this day.
Among the items still at issue are borders. For many Israelis, the idea of returning to pre-’67 national boundaries (where Israel’s waist was only nine miles wide) is out of the question. Yet the Arab states and many in the West, including the U.S., continue to press for this.
Second, there’s the West Bank. To the Arab world and much of the West, the 2,000 square-mile region is an “occupied territory” and thus illegal under international law. Yet to many Israelis, the West Bank was captured legitimately from Jordan, which, along with its allies Egypt and Syria, was poised to attack Israel with the intention of wiping the tiny nation off the map.
And let’s not forget Jerusalem. Israel took back the Old City (which had been in Jordanian hands) in the 1967 conflict, liberating many of the Jewish people’s most sacred sites, including the Wailing Wall. “We have returned to our holiest places,” said minister of defense Moshe Dayan, “never to part from them again.” That’s still the Israeli position. Yet to the Arabs and much of the international community, Jerusalem is potentially the capital of a future Palestinian state.
With the effects of the Six Day War still dogging the 21st Century peace process, it’s no surprise that the nearly 50-year-old conflict still continues to fascinate. Here are nine little-known (and amazing) facts about the Six Day War.
It was a tempest in a teacup
Israel is very small geographically; it’s about the size of New Jersey. At the war’s outset, the Israeli capital was well within range of enemy guns. Jordan’s border east of Tel Aviv was so close that Arab artillerymen could easily see the city and the Mediterranean beyond. Similarly, an Israeli soldier stationed along the Sinai could get in a car and drive home to Tel Aviv in two hours, while an Egyptian bomber taking off from Cairo could strike the Jewish city in less than half an hour. That’s how short the distances are.
It was a David vs. Goliath war
When war erupted in ’67, Israel had a largely reservist army. The IDF could field just three regular force brigades consisting of roughly 50,000 troops. The additional 200,000 soldiers it would throw into battle were part-timers. Egypt’s army was 240,000 strong while Syria, Jordan and Iraq had a combined total of 307,000 men.
Israel had an ad hoc army
The Israeli army had precious few trucks or troop transports available. Commanders were forced to mobilize civilian vehicles at the war’s outset. The paratroop brigade that captured the Old City of Jerusalem was ferried to battle aboard school buses and tourist coaches. And like the 1914 Battle of the Marne, even taxis were called up for service. So were fire trucks. In fact, one of the great fears in Tel Aviv during the brief but savage war was how to put out fires if Egyptian bombers struck the city; virtually all the emergency vehicles had been commandeered by the army.
It was the original Shock and Awe war
The Six Day War opened with a dramatic pre-emptive air strike by Israel. In 1967, tensions between Tel Aviv and the Arab world, which had been simmering since the 1956 war, had reached a boiling point. With enemy troops massing on its borders, Israel committed virtually all of its warplanes to an early morning attack on 11 Egyptian air bases. The sorties were devastating; most of Egypt’s warplanes never got off the ground. Amazingly, Israel had no bombers to use in the attack. The all-or-nothing raid was carried out entirely by fighter planes. The IDF followed up with a ground offensive into the Sinai while simultaneously striking into Syrian and Jordanian territory in the north and east. Within a week, Israel held driven the enemy from the Golan Heights and the West Bank and had secured vast new lands.
It put Israeli arms in the spotlight
The speed and ferocity of the Israeli war effort astounded the world. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s black eye patch became probably the most recognizable symbol of the Israeli military in press and TV coverage of the Six Day War. Dayan lost his eye in Lebanon not fighting Arabs, but Vichy French during World War Two. In 1941, the 26-year-old, former native of Ottoman Palestine was part of the Allied force that liberated Lebanon and Syria from the Axis. The wound was inflicted when a bullet fired by a French sniper struck a pair of binoculars that Dayan was holding to his eyes.
The Jewish State stood alone
Israel’s putative allies — England, France, and the U.S. — sent no aid of any kind. In fact, France cut off all arms shipments to Israel.
Israel’s “Holy Warriors” weren’t that religious
Although the Six Day War was fought on ground where three of the world’s great religons intersect, a surprising number of combatants weren’t all that overly devout. In fact, when Israeli paratroopers captured the Wailing Wall on June 7, 1967, many of them were so untutored in their own faith that they did not even know how to pray. A common scene at the wall that day was one soldier teaching another the proper way to offer a Jewish prayer. The Wailing Wall (or more accurately the “Western Wall”) is not, as many people believe, a wall of Solomon’s Temple, which was built around 900 B.C. It’s a retaining wall of the mount on which the Great Temple once stood (the “Temple Mount.”)
It was short but bloody
After six days of heavy fighting, Israeli casualties were between 776 and 983 killed; approximately 4,500 were wounded. Egypt suffered between 9,800 and 15,000 killed, wounded or MIA, 4,300 captured. Estimates for Jordan are about 700 killed, 2,500 wounded. Syria lost a thousand killed. Total Arab states’ losses: between 13,200 and 23,500 killed and more than 5,500 captured.
As many as 46 Israeli aircraft were destroyed in action out of about 240. The IDF also lost 800 tanks. The Arab states’ tally was 452 planes and hundreds of tanks destroyed.
The legacy of ‘67 is with us still
The Six Day War left Israel in control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, not to mention Gaza and the West Bank, leading to decades of sectarian turmoil. Ironically, prior to the 1967 war, Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories never referred to themselves as “Palestinians”. Locals were identified as “Arabs” or in the case of the West Bank “Jordanian Arabs.” Yasser Arafat, chief of the guerilla organization Fatah, is credited with coining the term in its contemporary understanding.
Steven Pressfield is the author of The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War (now available in paperback). A best-selling historical author, Pressfield’s 1998 novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, was a critical and commercial success and is required reading at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. His other books include The Warrior Ethos, Killing Rommel, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, the film of which was directed by Robert Redford and starred Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron. You can follow him on Twitter here.